Does Cropping Have to Fit a Certain Aspect Ratio?

My preferred crop for this image of Bridalveil Fall doesn't fit any of the common print sizes

In the comments for my last critique, Michael Glover asked a question about cropping and aspect ratios. I get this question a lot, as many people feel that they must crop their images to a certain size—4x6, 8x10—for printing. So I thought I would expand on my answer to Michael and address this issue in more depth here.

The problem with cropping to fit a particular aspect ratio for printing is that you can compromise the photograph’s esthetics. The accompanying images of Bridalveil Fall show what I mean. Below you'll find the uncropped version, with its original 2:3 (or 4x6 or 8x12) aspect ratio, and a version cropped to a 4:5 (or 8x10) ratio.

To me, the uncropped version leaves too much empty space on the right and left sides, while the 4:5 ratio is too square, and a bit static. I prefer the crop at the top of this post, which lies somewhere in between.

For online viewing, which is the most common way people see my images these days, aspect ratio doesn’t matter, so I crop for esthetics, and if that means the photograph becomes more panoramic, or square, so be it.

Uncropped version; to me there's too much empty space on the sides
Uncropped version; to me this 2:3 aspect ratio leaves too much empty space on the sides

For prints, I cut my own mats, so it’s easy for me to accommodate any dimensions. But I realize that most people don’t own their own mat cutter, so aspect ratio then becomes more of a concern. Here are some suggestions for dealing with that.

Copies and Virtual Copies

If you use Lightroom, you can create a virtual copy of your image (Photo > Create Virtual Copy), and crop one version for online viewing, and the other to fit a certain aspect ratio for printing. Then just choose the appropriate copy when you’re ready to export a TIFF for printing or a JPEG for the web.

I think you can make virtual copies in Aperture as well. (I don’t use Aperture, but I’m sure someone out there can confirm this.)

If you use Lightroom and Photoshop, don’t crop the photograph in Lightroom before taking it into Photoshop, and don’t crop it in Photoshop either. Make all of your other adjustments in Photoshop, then after you save your file it will appear in Lightroom, where you can then make two virtual copies: one cropped for esthetics, one for printing that fits a convenient aspect ratio (I’d suggest keeping the original Photoshop master file uncropped).

If you use Photoshop and Bridge, don’t crop your Photoshop master file, but when you’re ready to print, make a copy of that master file, select the Crop tool, then enter the dimensions and resolution you need in the Tool Options bar at the top.

Cropped to a 4:5 aspect ratio; this seems too boxy and static to me
Cropped to a 4:5 aspect ratio; this seems too boxy and static to me

Stretching or Squeezing the Image

Here’s another idea: open a copy of your master file in Photoshop, then go to Image > Image Size, and uncheck “Constrain Proportions.” This will allow you to stretch or squeeze the image to fit a certain size without cropping. Unfortunately this often distorts the image too much, but sometimes a little distortion combined with a little cropping can give you the dimensions you need without eliminating important elements.

One more trick: open a copy of your master file in Photoshop, choose Select > All, then go to Edit > Content-Aware Scale. Drag the edges of the bounding box to change the proportions of the image. With Content-Aware Scaling, Photoshop tries to keep prominent objects intact, while shrinking the space in between them. This works better with some images than others, and again, a little bit of Content-Aware Scaling combined with a little bit of cropping might do the trick without distorting the image too much.

Custom Mats

Finally, you don’t necessarily have to make the print fit a certain aspect ratio, even if you don’t own your own mat cutter. You can simply leave a white border on the paper and frame it to show that border. Or, have Documounts make a custom mat for you. (I’m sure there are other companies that do this too.)

That’s all I can think of right now, but I bet some of you have discovered other creative solutions to this problem, so please tell us about them in the comments!

—Michael Frye

P.S. Sometimes it’s hard to keep track of virtual copies in Lightroom, so here’s a little tip: In the Library Module, near the bottom of the right-hand panel under Metadata, there’s a field called “Copy Name.” (If you use the default Metadata viewing mode, it’ll be the third field down.) When you create a Virtual Copy, Lightroom will automatically name it “Copy 1.” But you don’t have to keep this name. You can name your master file “Master,” another copy “Online Crop,” another copy “Printing Crop,” and so forth.

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBook Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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    Since “standard” crop sizes predate even 35 mm film, do you see the day when mat and frame companies will change this to more closely match today’s dslr sensor size?

    Greg, this would seem like an obvious thing to do, yet 30+ years of market dominance by 35mm film and it’s 2:3 aspect ratio didn’t change these standard sizes, so I wouldn’t hold your breath! It’s rather incomprehensible, but there it is.

    Jim, I use standard frame sizes (or outside mat dimensions), if only because galleries would prefer to deal with standard sizes. And if you place several prints on the same wall, whether in a gallery or in your home, it would look a bit odd if the frames were slightly different sizes. But if a piece will stand by itself, and you’re not dealing with a gallery, you can certainly use a non-standard frame size that fits the aspect ratio of your print, and, if it’s matted, leaves the same size mat borders on each side. It’s fairly easy to get frame sections cut to any size, even 1/4 inch or 1/2 inch increments.

    Learn to cut your own mattes. Several companies offer stick built framing pieces in whole inch increments. Or pay hundreds at one of the framing shops in most cities. When you stop to consider actually how many images are printed and framed, a little custom work to make that image look great is worth it. There is still yet another choice – museum gallery style. Usually the frame is large, and the matting is thick and wide. Cut the hole to the dimensions for an odd ratio image. Still not happy, go with gallery wrap canvas – frameless. Don’t want canvas? Try an aluminum mounted piece that floats off the wall, also frameless. Glass is easily cut, and many shops offer UV glass as well. Just remember to use eye-screws and wire for hanging the piece. The sawtooth hangers just won’t support much weight.

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